Having rather quickly thrown together a beach trip this summer to North Carolina, I made the mistake of not consulting chowhound before dining in strange places. Fortunately, I ate well anyway. Here’s a trip report.
La Carreta Mexican Restaurant, Thomasville NC. Having cruised pass Lexington NC without even a whisper of a BBQ restaurant advertised on I-85, we pulled off the interstate in Thomasville, regretfully ready to stop at a Hardees. But we, instead, saw an older shopping center with a Mexican reataurant and a fair number of people parked in front. Taking this as a good sign, we stopped. I had a shrimp, onion and peppers dish (do not recall the name) that was fresh, not great, but far better than what I would have received at the Hardees. The place is at exit 103. Head north towards Thomasville. It’s in the shopping center on the right side of the road before you hit the Hardees.
Vallarta, Raleigh NC. This is on Capital Boulevard in an old McDonalds, now painted in Mexican pastels, not too far north of the Beltline there. This is a great place to get Mexican seafood. My wife had the shrimp cocktail; I had the mixed seafood cocktail. These are quite different than the boring American appetizer. In the Mexican version, this becomes gazpacho with seafood added. A great hot weather dish. The version we had at Vallarta was somewhat sweeter than that I have had other places, but featured the same enormous dish, and large amount of seafood one tends to find.
The restaurant had a very very large menu (including Quail!) and is open 24 hours on the weekends. It is popular with the local Mexican community.
Zaxby’s, Raleigh NC. These fast food restaurants are as good in their way, as In and Outs and Fatburgers are in the West Coast. The chicken tenders are well cooked and the sauces are good. I prefer their salads, which are fairly fresh. It is a chain that’s all over the southeast. Good standardized food, well prepared. Perfect, if you are eating with children with no taste for the exotic or are trying to get something right off the interstate.
42nd Street Oyster Bar, Raleigh NC . Once upon a time, there was a dive in Raleigh known as the 42nd Street Oyster Bar that served good oyster stew. This place, though located on the same location, and serving up a very good oyster stew (with NO potatoes) is not that dive. One, however, can find artifacts of the old dive throughout this cavernous, very 80s restaurant. It makes for good reading while waiting for a table at this deservedly popular spot.
This said, this is a very good restaurant with high standards, large portions, and hot (slightly greasy) tasty hush puppies. I went with the seafood primavera here, rather than something more traditional, to go with the famous oyster stew. I was happy with the quality, though overwhelmed by the quantity. Seafood was fresh and the sauce had taste.
King’s BBQ, Kinston NC. On the truly miserable drive from Raleigh to Atlantic Beach NC on US 70 (which makes one worship Dwight Eisenhower for our expressway system), this is a good stop. BBQ sauce is vinegar based, and pretty good. Cole slaw, on the other hand, was outstanding and went great with the q. Maybe because it was made without mayo. Hush puppies (sweet) were also great. I was happy when I left, but I would not go out of my way for this.
Frost’s Seafood Restaurant, Salter Path NC Every beach town has the place that’s been around since 1956 (or some similar year). This is the one for Salter Path (a couple of towns down from Atlantic Beach). The crabcakes were strong on the crab. The hush puppies were hot. The fried combo seafood was fresh and tasty. No great new culinary baselines are established here, but there is great virtue to being the local place that does the simple things well. Recommended. Easy to find.
4 Corners Diner, Atlantic Beach NC Beach towns also feature a place that knows how to do breakfast well. This seems to be the place in Atlantic Beach. Coffee was fine, and the french toast was as good as it gets. (Eggs and bacon were, well, eggs and bacon). Right at the main intersection in town.
Sanitary Fish Market, Morehead City NC. Yep, it’s a tourist joint. The T-shirts cost way too much, and it’s unlikely you could get the hush puppy mix they sell to work right. As a seafood restaurant, I liked it OK, though the stuffed flounder I had needed a lot more flavor than was provided. (My wife’s broiled shrimp was perfect, however) The hush puppies are outstanding, and it’s probably worth a visit just to worship at the shrine of this particular aspect of North Carolina indigenous cuisine. Once is likely enough, though. I did not experience the problems with service noted by many on this board.
D J Shooters Restaurant, Atlantic Beach NC This restaurant had the sweetest waitress in Atlantic Beach, but the food was just passable. The fish (can’t remember what it was) was dry; fortunately, the oysters were pretty good. Hush puppies were fine.
No Name Restaurant, Beaufort NC. There are days when neither BBQ nor seafood appeals as a lunch item. This restaurant, on a gloomy stretch of US 70 in Beaufort looked like a repurposed fast food restaurant, but was flooded with locals. This turned out to be a greek pizzeria (with salads on the menu, too). We had a pizza; it was good, with many tasty toppings. This is a find.
Cox’s Family Restaurant, Morehead City NC. Judging by the boards, this is a well-known joint in Morehead City. It should be. I had the “Oysterburger” – Oysters and cole slaw on a hamburger bun. Excellent and the platter lunch was less than $5.00. The banana pudding for dessert was not a the best I’ve ever had in the South, but darn good. Simple things done right, and served up cheap. Very recommended. Only downside is the restaurant is on a miserable stretch of US 70 and is a nasty left turn if you are coming from the beach causeway.
Clawson’s 1905 Restaurant, Beaufort NC. The building housing the restaurant has been around since 1905, but the restaurant (and parts of its menu) seems to date from the 70s. No hush puppies here – this is a hot roll and tablecloths kind of place where the local Rotary club meets. Taking a clue form the décor, we shied away from simple seafood, and instead went for the New Orleans Seafood Sautee. The shellfish was nicely cooked, the sauce did not overwhelm it, and the sausage was flavorful. Seemed to be worth the half-hour wait. It’s a good option for the Beaufort waterfront.
Watford's Bar-B-Que, Bishopville SC. Bishopville is a pleasant small town just off I-20 between Columbia and Florence. This place (on US-15, on the south side of town, and within three miles of the interstate) is easy to find, but not heralded from the interstate. If you are driving on US 15, the place will be on the right side of the road, just as you begin to enter the older part of town.
As for food, my wife and I had the “small” bbq plate (it being lunch). “Small” means “not quite huge, but as much as any sane person would want”. The lunch comes with slaw, hash and rice, and the main event, the shredded pork. (Which is ham only, and, according to the prominently displayed signs, low in cholesterol). And, since we weren’t yet too far from the coast, a couple of hush puppies. The puppies were rubbery and a little cool. Skip ‘em. The cole slaw was very good, the hash and rice and bbq exceptional. The rice was not sticky or mushy, and the “hash” on top very flavorful. The sauce, while mustard based (this being South Carolina) was strong on both the vinegar and the pepper. This is one of the hotter SE BBQ sauces I have encountered. Definitely worth the trip off the interstate. Might well be worth a special diversion for folks coming I-95 or I-77. Just make sure you come through Wed-Sat.